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Let Your Feet Prevent You From Falling

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Lately, I've noticed a growing trend among older adults that has worried me. Many have opted to wear heavily padded sports shoes. These seemingly comfortable shoes may actually increase the risk of dangerous falls.

In today's blog post, I want to share with you the remarkable anatomy of our feet and our hidden sense that helps us maintain balance. I’ll explain how going barefoot or opting for barefoot shoes can promote foot strength, enhance balance, and effectively prevent falls.

What is Proprioception?

Did you know that we have a hidden sense with specialized sensors located all over our body that allows us to perceive our body's position without relying on our vision?

Proprioception may be a new term for some of you, but it plays a vital role in our balance and stability. Think of it as an internal GPS system that helps us navigate the world around us. It gives us a sense of where our body parts are in relation to each other and how they are moving, even if we can't see them.

You can try this exercise to get a sense of how proprioception works:

Close your eyes and touch your nose with your finger. Even without seeing your finger or your nose, you can accurately find your nose with your finger.

This is all thanks to your proprioceptive system, which provides feedback from sensors in your muscles, joints, and tendons. This information allows your brain to understand the position and movement of your body parts.

Proprioception also enables you to:

  • Sense if your feet are on soft grass or hard asphalt without looking.

  • Balance on one leg.

  • Gauge the right amount of muscle force needed to move that glass of water to your mouth instead of accidentally smashing it into your face!

All our proprioceptive sensors work together, continuously sending signals to our brain about the status of our muscles, tendons, and joints. The brain processes this information, making adjustments that allow us to move smoothly, maintain balance, and interact accurately with our environment. The incredible part is, that most of us aren't even aware of this remarkable sense!

However, as we age, there can be a gradual decline in the sensitivity and efficiency of these sensory receptors. These proprioceptive changes often occur in the joints that are crucial for maintaining balance, such as our ankles, knees, and hips.

Prevent Age Related Falls

Our sensory receptors constantly send messages to our brain to help us maintain balance and prevent falls. But is there a way to prevent the decline of these vital receptors as we age?

A healthy lifestyle can support the functioning of our sensory receptors and help preserve our balance. Here are some key practices:

  • Regular exercise to keep our muscles strong and our joints moveable so they can send accurate signals to the brain.

  • Activities that challenge proprioception, such as balance exercises or yoga.

  • Sensory stimulation to the feet and hands through activities such as walking barefoot on different surfaces (with caution) or using sensory toys for the hands and fingers.

  • Mindful Movement, paying close attention to the sensations and movements of your body during the day, can increase proprioceptive awareness.

Safe Shoes for Older Adults

Lately, I have noticed more and more older adults wearing heavily padded sports shoes. I’m guessing that well-meaning relatives, or even health professionals, suggested these padded shoes to alleviate foot pain. Unfortunately these shoes have the potential to also increase the likelihood of dangerous falls.

As we age, the sensory receptors in our feet gradually weaken, making it more challenging to perceive the ground beneath us. Heavily padded shoes may seem beneficial by providing cushioning and support, but they also lessen the sensory feedback from our feet. This can prevent an older adult’s ability to properly perceive the ground they walk on. I've even witnessed younger, active adults twist an ankle because they were unable to feel the ground beneath them, masked by heavily padded shoes.

Unfortunately, the combination of weakened foot sensors together with overly padded shoes cause a lack of sensation that can make it nearly impossible for older adults to feel the ground, potentially raising the likelihood of dangerous falls. Most of us are aware that falls in older adults, can have severe consequences, leading to fractures, injuries, and a decline in overall well-being.

When selecting footwear for older adults, striking a balance between comfort and safety is crucial. Rather than opting for heavily padded shoes, it is advisable to consult with your healthcare provider and consider wearing more minimalistic shoes. These types of shoes enable better foot-ground sensation, thereby reducing the risk of falls.

The Perfect Foot

Imagine trying to build a structure that is over 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall and needs to be supported by a small base of only 250 mm (10 inches.) This may seem impossible, but yet our relatively small feet have evolved to support our long bodies. It wasn’t an easy task – it took millions of years of evolution to develop the perfect foot.

I find anatomy fascinating because it reveals the incredible perfection of our bodies and to me that is awe inspiring! Here are some facts about the remarkable design of our feet which support our bodies so effectively:

1. Bones: The human foot consists of 26 bones, which makes up about 1/4 of the total number of bones in our body! All these bones make our foot strong and flexible.

2. Joints: There are 33 joints in our foot which allow us to adjust to a wide range of terrains and enables us to walk, run, jump, and perform various activities.

3. Arch Structure: The foot developed three main arches that distribute body weight evenly across the foot, absorb shock, and provide stability during movement.

4. Ligaments and Tendons: The foot has numerous ligaments and tendons that provide support, stability, and allow for efficient movement.

5. Toes: Our toes help us move forward and provide balance and propulsion during walking and running.

6. Proprioception: As we discussed earlier, the foot is rich in proprioceptive sensors. These sensors provide information about the foot's position, movement, and the terrain it interacts with, helping us maintain balance and adjust our gait.

7. Weight Distribution: I was so amazed to learn that the exact angles of our bones in our feet allow for even weight distribution across the foot's surface area.

So we were given this amazing gift of two perfect feet to support our body weight and yet instead of walking and running as our bodies were designed, most people think that a manufactured shoe can do a better job.

One of my remarkable anatomy teachers, Tom Myers, summarized it eloquently:

"We have taken the foot and put it in a coffin."

Let's honor the incredible design of our feet and allow them to move freely and function as nature intended, rather than confining them in the limitations of manufactured shoes.

Go Barefoot!

Walking barefoot allows our feet to function as they were naturally designed to do. Traditional shoes often restrict these natural movements, leading to weakened foot muscles, imbalances, and altered gait patterns. By walking barefoot, we restore the natural biomechanics of our feet and improve their strength and flexibility.

As discussed earlier, walking barefoot enhances proprioception, improving balance, and reducing the risk of falls. Also, the intrinsic muscles of the feet, which are often neglected when wearing shoes, are activated, leading to increased muscle tone and improved foot arches. Stronger foot muscles can help prevent common foot problems like plantar fasciitis and flat feet.

Are you comfortable walking barefoot or have your feet gotten too used to being in closed in shoes?

A few years ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Spellwald Foot Park in Germany where both children and adults enjoy the pleasure of walking barefoot and using their feet on many different types of structures.

Watching this clip again, I’m actually quite impressed that I was not only able to walk on sharp rocks, lift weights with my feet and pick up hoops with my toes, but I did it all while filming! 😂

Would your feet be able to enjoy this park? If not, start slowly, with caution, by taking your feet out of your shoes for a nice walk on some grass or sand! Let your feet learn how to walk again. They have forgotten how to walk naturally if they have been only in closed shoes for years.

During our training sessions on the beach, my running partner and I experimented with running barefoot in the middle of our workout. We would take off our shoes and run on the sand, for a 2 km stretch and even ran uphill. To my amazement, running barefoot up a hill provided an unexpected advantage – my toes instinctively grasped onto the slope for added grip. This experience opened my eyes to a new technique, as I found myself utilizing my toes even when wearing shoes. Incorporating this toe engagement made hill running more efficient.

Walking and gradually reacquainting our feet with natural movements can restore biomechanics, enhance proprioception, strengthen foot muscles, and prevent common foot problems.

Barefoot Shoes

As we have learned, it is important to go barefoot on grass or on the sand, but you can also get the benefits of walking barefoot by wearing what are called barefoot or minimalistic shoes.

These shoes are designed to mimic the experience of walking or running barefoot while providing some level of protection and comfort. These shoes are typically characterized by the following features:

Thin Sole: Barefoot shoes have a thin and flexible sole which allows for better sensory feedback. It also allows the foot to be less restricted, so movements are more natural.

Minimal Cushioning: Unlike traditional shoes that often have thick cushioning, barefoot shoes have minimal cushioning or sometimes none. This promotes a more direct connection between the foot and the ground, allowing for better proprioceptive feedback

Wide Toe Box: Barefoot shoes offer a wider toe box to allow the toes to spread naturally, enhancing balance and stability and preventing numerous foot and toe issues.

Zero Drop: The sole of barefoot shoes maintains a consistent level from heel to toe, mimicking the foot's natural position.

Lightweight and Flexible: Barefoot shoes are lightweight and flexible. This feature allows greater freedom of movement and promotes a more natural stride.

By allowing the foot to function closer to its natural state, barefoot shoes aim to promote better foot strength, balance, and proprioception.

I've personally been wearing and running in barefoot shoes for about five years now, and they have completely changed my perspective on footwear. Allow me to share a personal experience to illustrate this.

Last winter, I went hiking with my husband, and because there was a forcast of light snow, I decided to wear my beloved, sturdy hiking boots that have been with me on countless adventures. As soon as I started hiking in those boots, something felt off. I couldn't sense the subtle changes in terrain that I had grown accustomed to feeling in my barefoot shoes. It left me feeling surprisingly unbalanced and disconnected from the environment around me. Even though I've walked miles in these hiking shoes, as I hiked that day, I simiply could not understand how anyone could wear these types of hiking boots! I now felt a heightened vulnerability to falls while wearing them!

I had to say good-bye to my trusted companions, and purchased a pair of hiking boots that were softer and more flexible, allowing me to regain that sense of connection and safety while hiking. It was a clear reminder that our footwear choices can have a significant impact on our well-being and safety!

If you haven't tried barefoot shoes or explored footwear options that prioritize sensory feedback, I highly recommend giving them a try, however, It's important to note that transitioning to barefoot shoes should be done gradually to allow the feet and lower limbs to adapt to the new style of footwear. It's advisable to seek guidance from a barefoot shoe specialist to ensure a smooth and safe transition.

Remember, our feet are remarkable structures designed to support us, and choosing the right footwear can make a world of difference in how we move, feel, and experience the world around us. Wearing the right shoes can also keep us balanced and prevent falls.

Took my brand new pair of barefoot shoes for a test run on a hike in the Ramon Crfater this morning!

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